Dec 3, 2019
Match employee roles to farm market needs

Farms that sell produce while using entertainment to attract people to the farm are complicated operations. For Eckert’s Orchard at Versailles, Kentucky, it’s essentially meant having three employee teams.

The need for different types of labor reflects how the operation changes as the season progresses, and it starts with growing the fruit and vegetables.

“We have the farm crew, that takes care of everything on the farm – pruning, spraying, picking,” said Megan Fields, Eckert’s Orchard general manager. Strawberries, peaches, apples, blackberries and pumpkins are grown on the farm. The retail market also sells produce like tomatoes, asparagus, green beans and sweet corn.

The farm market opens in May and the summer season runs through August. The retail team for the summer season includes teenagers, college students and retirees.

The retail team sorts fruit, restocks shelves, guides customers through the pick-your-own process and performs the other functions of a farm market. They also clean up the fun corral – an entertainment area for children – and monitor the area for safety.

The operation also offers a full line of bakery products that are made on the farm daily. The jams, jellies, salsas and dressings that are sold originate at Eckert’s main operation at Belleville, Illinois. Eckert’s is a long-established family of fruit growers.

Pumpkin harvest is when people like Alicia Guagliardo and her son, Isaiah, of Versailles, Kentucky, come to Eckert’s Orchard to pick out pumpkins and participate in the fun activities. It’s also the time when Eckert’s Orchard needs its largest workforce. Photo: Dean Peterson

Only a part of the operation’s fun corral is open in the summer with the admission being half price.

The farm market where people can buy fruit and vegetables is the big draw in the summer. “People around here still feel a connection to farming,” Fields said. “They like the farming side of Eckert’s because we’re so involved in many types of agriculture.”

Retired people are a big part of the customer base in the summer. “Mom’s and Dad’s do come out with their kids,” Fields said, “to pick fruit and to let the kids play in the playground.”

“All customers come for different purpose,” Fields said. “Our summer customers are here for fresh fruit and produce.”

In the fall, the situation changes completely and the whole operation kicks into high gear. Pumpkin harvest has come and people flock to Eckert’s Orchard to pick out their pumpkins and to participate in the fun activities.

The fun corral doubles in size to include a corn maze, playground in the hay, pedal cars, pig races, a rotating cylinder called a rat race, camel and pony rides, train rides and a full petting zoo.

“There are haunted hayrides in the fall which are very, very child friendly,” Fields said. The school bus tours also start in the fall and that’s when Eckert’s Orchard starts making its signature apple cider.

There is also room for company picnics, and by-the-barn campfire sites are available by reservation only.

A large workforce is needed in the fall. Staffing is an eight-week position and most of the work is on the weekend. Teenagers make up about three-fourths of the work force in the fall.

“That’s one of my most favorite parts of the job – seeing teenage workers develop,” Fields said. “For many of them, it’s their first job and it’s good seeing them learn to go out in the workforce.”

— Dean Peterson, FGN correspondent

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